Call it $ummertime. This is the time of year when Kentucky and Tennessee produce wholesalers and distributors are bringing in fruits and vegetables from fields in their own region.
Retailers, foodservice outlets, farmers markets and terminal-market vendors are busy selling homegrown goods and, many vendors note, saving considerable sums on shipping.
Like vendors in other states, produce dealers in Kentucky and Tennessee get a boost from their own departments of agriculture.
Kentucky Proud is a product of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said Adam Watson, produce marketing specialist for department.
“When you look at Kentucky, I’d say really things are actually looking better,” he said. “Some of the components of Kentucky Proud include incentives for restaurants to use Kentucky Proud produce and things like that. Our Farm to School initiative is drawing interest. Regional distributors are actually coming to us and saying, ‘Who can you connect us with?’ because their customers are specifically requesting local (or regional) produce.”
Watson noted the foodservice sector has taken a hit in Kentucky, as well as in other states, through the recession.
But restaurants are making a comeback, and that is helping produce sales, he said.
“We’re seeing a higher demand from local greenhouses, as well.”
Produce sales are brisk in Tennessee, as well, said Dan Strasser, director of market development with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
“There’s a large direct-to-consumer market in Tennessee, which serves many producers,” he said. “Even wholesalers have gotten into it.”
Strasser said Tennessee also is seeing an increase in its roster of farmers markets.
“We have 95 counties and at least 80 farmers markets,” he said. “The consumer demand is the biggest thing. Also, the USDA initiative to begin and enhance farmers markets. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is also assisting in funding.”
Retail chains like Whole Foods and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are feeding that trend, Strasser noted.
Consumers are still buying produce, although perhaps less fresh product, said Kenny Pendergrass, vice president of purchasing for Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Dixie Produce Inc.
Farmers markets seem to be healthy, however, Pendergrass said.
Foodservice business has been “a mixed bag,” Pendergrass added.
“They’re still expecting some pretty good business,” he said. “You go to some chains that have seen a 25% or 30% drop in sales.”
For Louisville, Ky., vendors, the Kentucky Derby on the first weekend of May is a high point for business, said Frank Campisano Jr., salesman for Frank A. Campisano & Sons Fruit Co., Louisville.
“The derby is big for this area in general,” he said. “It’s the biggest week of the year. The two weeks leading up to the derby and Derby Week, it kind of kicks everything off. Mothers Day follows, and then the summer season. It picks up then. It’s steady.”
The business has certain strong spots and certain vulnerabilities, said Clyde Combs, salesman and buyer for A.J. Passafiume Sons Produce, Louisville.
“The locally grown sells pretty well, but here’s not enough of it, so you still have to get a lot from California and Idaho,” he said. “Restaurants are doing real well until the economy slammed us. Now, the grocery stores are doing better than the restaurants. They’re not cooking at home 100%, but they’re cooking at home more.”
Ron Evans, buyer for Neel’s Wholesale Produce Co., Knoxville, Tenn., said he hasn’t seen much of a dip in foodservice business.
“We do foodservice mainly, and it has been good,” he said.
Mike Passafiume, salesman for Louisville-based Horton Fruit Co., said business appears to be headed upward.
“As far as locally grown, when the doom-and-gloomers were out a year ago, retail kind of picked up, and foodservice had dropped off,” he said. “Now it has kind of balanced back out. ”
As for restaurants, he added, “the mom-and-pop restaurants have struggled the most. The chains have been able to withstand it.”